An article dated June 13, 1934 “Part of the Show,” which was written in response to Sweeney Todd and other productions, suggests how theatre producers engaged the audiences’ attention with various techniques to make sure that they kept following what went on on the stage, and therefore, eventually, to make sure return audiences. “Audiences are waking up to the fact, long recognized on the other side of the footlights, that they play an important role in any kind of entertainment offered them.” This suggested that the theatre would strive to present various effects and elements that would capture the audiences’ senses. Considering the gory material of the story of Sweeney Todd, one could imagine what kinds of effects were produced before the audiences’ eyes. “Every performer, from the clown to the dignified public speaker, knows that the mood and temper of an audience are as important as its contribution at the box office… More direct and obvious is the training given recently by producers of plays which need quick applause and hisses for best effect.” Hinted is the awareness of theatre producers to master audiences’ psychology to be able to control their responses. They would do what they needed to do technically to achieve the desired effects and engage the audiences actively.
The delightful collaboration between stage and pit encouraged by Mr. Morley in Hoboken some time past, the gay participation in old songs between the acts of ‘Sweeney Todd,’ a few years ago, and the lively part taken by the audience in some of today’s shows are all of a piece. It may be too informal for some tastes, but most people like to help in their own amusement.
Involving the audiences to some degree in the dramatic world of the play had been a successful technique. Audiences familiar with dramatic cues felt emotionally involved and participated actively with their spontaneous responses. The same articles gave an example. In a play called The Drunkard (also by Dibdin-Pitt), when “the villain tries to lure the hero to the villain’s ale-house, the latter’s moment of hesitation is the cue for ‘Don’t go, don’t go,’ from all quarters of the house.” We could imagine how emotionally involved the audiences might have been seeing a customer sitting in the barber’s big trap chair, with Sweeney standing behind him holding a sharp razor.
Although criminal stories are always in demand both in paper and for the stage, another demand also came along with it eventually: better quality, which in first decades of the 20th century could also mean embracing some naturalistic style. Another essay written by Charles Morgan in 1932 presented his appreciation of James Bridle’s work The Anatomist, which also told about criminal minds just like Maria Martin and Sweeney Todd. The piece was “a serious and extremely able play, written from the point of view not of the murderers but of Dr. Knox, the Edinburgh surgeon whose researches required a continuous procession of human anatomical specimens.” While the greater part of the play was still made in the old tradition of melodrama, it also presented scenes which made more senses and more authentic to real life, which also paid attention to the language being used. The Anatomist was, according to Morgan, “an ancient melodrama with an overlay of modernity.” The play uniquely combined both melodrama conventions with naturalistic drives. “The blood and thunder came; heredity and the ethics of capital punishment were conveniently put aside; and we were free to observe with interest the dramatist’s and the actor’s compromise between modern naturalism and melodramatic tradition.” At this particular period, attention had been paid to the storytelling details of pieces dealing with crimes and violence in addition to the dramatic plot and visual effects typical of melodrama.
So, the old legend of Sweeney Todd the demon barber has been told, written, adapted to the stage, and revived. Its popularity has been proved undiminished. Starting from an obscure source, it was one of the urban legends that continued to haunt its English public. Born in the era of melodrama and operating in that particular genre, the 19th century Sweeney Todd presented “bigger than life” features of the convention. Playing with the ideas of deepest fears, the productions of this melodrama engaged the audiences in an active emotional involvement to what was going on before their eyes in their battle against a strong, horrifying evil power of the murderous barber. Although the story of Sweeney has gone through some adjustments to suit contemporary audiences, from the penny dreadful versions, Dibdin-Pitt’s stage version, to the most recent Sondheim’s musicals, it still retains some of its melodramatic characteristics: the condition of being trapped in a nightmare where a lot of things happen to the extreme, and the journey ends when we, audiences, are awake from the dream. Although goodness won, it wasn’t an easy winning, and therefore was highly satisfying – which proved to be key in the success of the piece and its subsequent revivals. Quoting Brooks, “melodrama is indeed, typically, not only a moralistic drama but the drama of morality: it strives to find, to articulate, to demonstrate, to ‘prove’ the existence of a moral universe which, though put into question, masked by villainy and perversions of judgment, does exist and can be made to assert its presence and its categorical force among men” (20).
Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1976.
“Concerning the Vernal Habit of Play Reviving.” The New York Times 11 April 1926
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Frank, Leah D. “Hissing the Original Sweeney Todd.” The New York Times 22 July 1984: LI 13.
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“Literary Reform Urged.” The New York Times 17 October 1897
McConachie, Bruce A. Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre & Society, 1820-1870. Iowa City: U of Iowa Press, 1992.
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Morgan, Charles. “Melodrama as an Art: A Study in Contrasts.” The New York Times 1 April 1928
_____________. “Touching Up an Old-School Melodrama.” The New York Times 10 January 1932
“One Opening.” The New York Times 13 July 1924: x1.
“Part of the Show.” The New York Time 13 June 1934
“Rialto Gossip.” The New York Times 20 July 1924
“Robert Vivian of Sweeney Todd.” The New York Times 3 August 1924
Simpson, Jacqueline. “Urban Legends in the Pickwick Papers.” The Journal of American Folklore 96.382 (1983): 462-470. JSTOR. U of Kansas Libraries. 8 December 2006
“Sweeney Todd.” <http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=9544>
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